Racing: The Don earns respect his way

British racing's other Italian is at last making his mark and doing it the gentle way.
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FRANKIE DETTORI and the Derby-winning trainer Luca Cumani may occupy the racing headlines, but another Italian success story is gathering pace. Having long been one of the most eye-catching names on a racecard but, famously, far less conspicuous in the results section, Don Enrico Incisa is sending out winners.

The 64-year-old trainer does not have runners in the South of England these days, where he says "they don't even look at you", but on the Northern circuit he is something of a cult figure. On Sunday, his 14th win of the season put him two up on his previous best total here, set in 1997. This record figure would not sound very much were it not for his scores in the other 16 years that he has held a licence in Britain, from 1981 to 1996. These read: 0, 0, 0, 0, 3, 1, 1, 2, 0, 2, 4, 1, 0, 3, 0 and 1.

Amazing as it may seem, his runners over that rather barren period did attract some loyal support in the betting ring. "There was an old lady called Mrs Wrigley who always used to back my horses," Don Enrico says, "because, she used to say, `your horses seldom win, but when they win they are very good odds'. Unfortunately, she died last year."

Of the dramatic improvement in results, the trainer's explanation is: "Luck, and getting the right horses. I haven't changed anything." If there remains an air of mystery about this, perhaps that is only in keeping with an Italian aristocrat who has chosen to train racehorses on the moorland of North Yorkshire.

A quietly-spoken, private man, he is in fact Marchese Enrico Incisa della Rochetta, but does not call himself that because "they already make enough mistakes with my name as it is now". The title in his family dates back to about 1300. His forebears, says Don Enrico, "had a little fiefdom which lasted a hundred years maybe. They haven't achieved anything sensational I'm afraid". The racing world would disagree, as it was his father, Mario, in partnership with Federico Tesio, who bred the legendary racehorses Nearco and Ribot.

Ribot, carrying the colours of Don Enrico's father, won all his 16 races, two Arc de Triomphes among them, and the elegant trophy for the 1956 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes that is now resident with the trainer in Yorkshire. When the trophy was sent to be engraved in London, it was first lost, and then failed to make its way back to Italy through the diplomatic channels. Don Enrico picked it up more than 20 years later when he came to train in England.

In the meantime, the Cambridge graduate had completed 15 years assisting Ribot's trainer, Ugo Penco, and had his own training career. He was sending out 30 to 40 winners a season and once had 60 horses in his care. His best, Tierceron, was the top Italian three-year-old in 1972 and a candidate for the following year's Arc, but he broke down.

Taking up residence in the village of Coverham, near Middleham, with a string that has nearly always totalled about a dozen, was therefore something of a radical career move. It was not entirely an act of choice. When kidnapping became the in-thing in Italy in the late Seventies, his parents lived in fear that he would become the next fashion victim. Once the decision had been made to leave, though, Britain was the only place where he wanted to train.

It is not just history that makes Don Enrico a distinctive figure. Almost as striking is his long-standing reliance on women jockeys. In recent years this has meant a total reliance on Kim Tinkler, wife of the trainer Nigel.

"If Mrs Tinkler was a man, she wouldn't be riding for me, she would be riding for a trainer who had a hundred horses," Don Enrico states. "Some say, oh well, women are not strong enough, but if strength had anything to do with it Willie Shoemaker would never have won a race." Even Kim Tinkler, however, has found occasion to suggest that one of his horses needed stronger handling.

If Don Enrico held a high opinion of Mrs Tinkler before, it must be sky high now after another recommendation from her to buy McGillycuddy Reeks. In a busy career for four previous trainers, including Martin Pipe, this mare won a total of one seller on the Flat and two hurdle races. For her new handler, she has won seven handicaps on the Flat in the space of 13 months and sallies forth again at Beverley today. In June, her handicap rating since joining Don Enrico having risen from 40 to 75, McGillycuddy Reeks came ninth of 20 in the John Smith's Cup at York. "I never had a horse rated so highly; I never had a runner in a big race," the Don says. "Anyway, it was obviously a mistake."

Besides the Dales air, this admirable mare might well appreciate her new training regime. "A lot of trainers think that the more they work their horses the faster they will go, which is not the case," Don Enrico says.

Being asked the secrets of his success is something new, his representatives here before McGillycuddy Reeks being of a resolutely low calibre, but the trainer claims: "There is as much satisfaction winning a moderate race with a moderate horse as there is winning a good race with a good horse. It is more of a challenge. With a good horse, if you do something wrong, it wins by two lengths instead of by four. With a bad horse, if everything does not go exactly right, it doesn't win at all."

His remaining ambition, however, is "to have one good horse, about half as good as Ribot. That would be enough".

As it is, 42 years after Ribot won at Ascot, Don Enrico watches Frankie Dettori (whom he has known since he was a child) celebrating his big-race triumph. Of the exuberance of that celebration, he watches disapprovingly: "I told him the other day, "you can do that when you are 16, 17, not when you are 24, 25'. When he won the King George, he kissed Hamdan Al Maktoum, Maktoum Al Maktoum and Sheikh Mohammed. The Arabs don't mind because they do kiss each other among the men, but in Italy it is not quite so normal. I think he gets over-excited."

When Don Enrico enters the winners' enclosure, his reaction is hugely less animated. "Yes," he confirms, "I am under shock."